By: Grant Fisken
This month has seen Euro 2016 qualifying move into its closing stages, the Copa America get into full swing in Chile, and qualification for the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations begin. However in Asia and CONCACAF, the focus has already turned towards the 2018 World Cup. Qualification for the tournament in Russia started back in March, and despite there being nearly three years to the opening match, 23 countries have already been eliminated.
The list of nations already out of the running for 2018 includes Anguilla, Montserrat, Macau and Mongolia. They are not countries renowned for their footballing capabilities, but four of the teams that did play in the 2014 World Cup entered the fray this week. The Asian Football Confederation (AFC) had a disappointing tournament in Brazil with all four of their qualifiers finishing bottom of their group. Japan, Korea, Australia and Iran had mixed results as they opened their quest to reach Russia.
One of the biggest surprise results in qualifying so far came in Saitama where Japan were held to a goalless draw by a Singapore team 102 places below them in the FIFA World Rankings. New Japan coach Vahid Halihodzic’s first competitive match in charge did not go as he had expected, with visiting goalkeeper Izwan Bin Mahbud performing heroics to earn his side a draw. Carlos Queiroz’s Iran did not fare much better as they were held 1-1 in Turkmenistan.
Australia and Korea did start their campaigns with hard-fought away wins in Kyrgyzstan and Myanmar respectively, but all four of Asia’s 2014 World Cup representatives will need time to shake off the effects of their Brazilian disappointments. Fortunately for them time is something they do have, with nine more matches left to secure one of the 12 places available for the final round of Asian qualifying.
It is not all about the bigger nations at this stage of qualification, as the Pacific islanders of Guam have proved. They have begun their campaign with home wins against Turkmenistan and India, a remarkable achievement considering they did not even compete in qualifying for the previous three World Cups. Their only previous qualification attempt came for the 2002 tournament when they were demolished 19-0 by Iran and 16-0 by Tajikistan. A true marker of their progress will come in their next match in September, a trip to their old foes Iran.
It may be a couple of more rounds before the major CONCACAF nations begin their road to 2018, but there is one former World Cup semifinal goalscorer making an impact in the early stages. Patrick Kluivert has guided Curacao past Montserrat and Cuba into the third round, 17 years on from his goal for Netherlands in the last four against Brazil.
The early stages of qualifying can be a betting minefield with quite a few countries performing well above their supposed FIFA ranking or past performance, and it may be worth keeping an eye on the progress of Guam, Singapore and Curacao to maybe produce one or two more surprises in the months ahead.